Like Americans everywhere, I've been sickened and outraged to see 42,000 gallons of toxic crude oil coursing through the Yellowstone River, one of our last wild waterways, vital to fish, farmers and waterfowl.
Oil is caked along the river's fertile shores, choking plants and threatening wildlife, reports an NRDC staffer who visited the site last week.
Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer has pledged to hold ExxonMobil responsible for polluting the Yellowstone River, vowing to Politico last week "to stay on this like smell on a skunk until it's cleaned up."
Schweitzer's got it right, and he knows it won't be easy. With a master's degree in soil science, the governor understands the toll this oily sheen is taking on precious wetlands and the regional food chain.
"We Montanans," he said, "take our wildlife and our rivers very serious."
For all of us who care about American rivers and the life they sustain, the disaster befalling one of our most beloved and storied waterways is a timely warning against an even greater threat.
Big Oil wants to build a pipeline to send the dirtiest crude oil on the planet from the Boreal forests of Canada right through the heart of America, crossing the Yellowstone, the Missouri, the Platte and other treasured rivers on its way to Texas refineries.
This proposal -- the Keystone XL pipeline -- would dig us deeper into the oil dependency hole that undermines our economy, our national security and our future. It would expose waterways, croplands and wildlife across the American heartland to the kind of pipeline disaster unfolding along the Yellowstone. And it would feed one of the most destructive and regressive industrial practices on Earth.
The Canadian crude oil we buy in this country is coming increasingly from tar sands, which contain a viscous fossil fuel called bitumen. There's a lot of it lying beneath Canada's great Boreal forest, one of the largest contiguous woodlands anywhere in the world.
The first step in getting at the tar sands is to clear-cut the forest and dice it into a harrowing wasteland of access roads, containment ponds and equipment pads.
Where once primal forests stood and majestic woodlands animals thrived in the Canadian province of Alberta, tar sands companies have peeled back the forest and underlying peat to gouge out an open strip mine the size of greater Orlando, Fla.
It's a disgraceful crime against our environment. But the damage doesn't end there.
Once the tar sands are dug out, processors use huge amounts of hot water to separate the sand from the bitumen. The waste goes into enormous tailings ponds, where, in the best case, there it sits.
To get bitumen from deeper underground, tar sands companies must drill into the clay and coal where it lodges. To coax it from the earth requires pumping huge amounts of hot water in the ground, or "cooking" the land with steam, sometimes for months.
The heat comes from natural gas. We're burning one of our cleanest fuels, in other words, to get at some of the dirtiest, pumping out unmitigated tons of planet-warming carbon emissions in the process.
Next we have to turn this stuff into fuel, a bit like spinning straw into gold. It takes refining so extensive its akin to alchemy, requiring intensive energy use.
To get tar sands crude to the refineries, we run it through pipelines.
At room temperature, though, bitumen is nearly solid, a kind of cross between tar and soft coal. To run through pipelines, it must be diluted with natural gas liquids, which are highly volatile, then pumped under pressure at temperatures as high as 150 degrees F.
We are getting more and more raw tar sands bitumen, which is more corrosive and more abrasive than normal crude oil. That means it's harder on pipelines. The existing Keystone pipeline, one of the first to be dedicated to moving tar sands crude from Canada to the United States, has failed 12 times in its first year of operation, leaking 21,000 gallons of crude in the worst such incident.
A year ago this month, another tar sands pipeline spilled 840,000 gallons of bitumen and natural gas liquids into Michigan's Kalamazoo River. Cleanup costs have already topped $500 million, but the river -- 30 miles of which remain closed -- may never be the same.
Now comes the tar sands giant TransCanada, proposing to build the Keystone XL, a project that calls for 1,711 miles of new pipeline. About 1,400 miles of it would cut through the United States, crossing the border near Morgan, Mt., before passing through South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma en route to the Gulf Coast of Texas.
Nearly 250 miles of the pipeline would pass through the Ogallala Aquifer, the source of drinking water for millions of heartland Americans and nearly a third of our nation's irrigation needs. That's hardly the place for transporting up to 35 million gallons a day of hot, corrosive bitumen.
As a member of President Obama's National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling, I learned from our Gulf Coast families what that disaster did to the ocean. We certainly don't want to see anything like that happen in the essential waters of our nation's greatest aquifer.
And yet, the best analysis tells us a Keystone XL pipeline failure beneath the Nebraska Sandhills could gush up to 7.9 million gallons of tar sands crude into the aquifer, according to an assessment released this week the University of Nebraska's John Stansbury, Ph.D.
A surface water spill into, say, the Missouri River, could send a plume of toxic crude wending its way 450 miles downstream, according to Stansbury, the university's associate chair of environmental and water resources engineering.
Spills of some sort would be certain. In fact, we could expect 91 major spills over the 50-year projected life of the Keystone XL pipeline, Stansbury reports.
Beyond that, there are important questions about transporting tar sands crude through pipelines that we simply haven't answered.
How are pipelines affected, for example, by the high temperatures, pressures, corrosion and abrasion associated with moving tar sands crude? What increased risks does that pose to public safety and the environment? How do you clean it up once it spills? What must we do to protect ourselves from those risks?
We don't know, because the Department of Transportation agency that oversees pipeline safety -- the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration -- has never studied the issue.
The protections designed to keep our country's 2.5 million miles of pipeline safe, in fact, were put into place when tar sands weren't much of an issue. Neither our safeguards nor our pipelines are designed to a tar sands standard.
Rather than continuing to put our waters, croplands and wildlife at risk, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration should conduct a detailed study of diluted bitumen and how its unique characteristics wear away at pipelines and raise the odds of catastrophic spills. And the agency should be directed to develop new safeguards to protect major freshwater resources like the Yellowstone River from pipeline spills.
As for the Keystone XL pipeline, it has no place in our energy future. It is, instead, a conduit to the past, a relic of a fossil fuel dependency we badly need to move beyond. Building it would pay tribute to the worst impulses of our addiction to oil, our willingness to put our very future at risk for the sake of the planet's dirtiest fuel.
Because Keystone XL would cross the U.S. border, it requires a determination of national interest by our State Department, which is expected to rule on that question by year's end. Sometime in August, the State Department is expected to issue an Environmental Impact Statement.
The Keystone XL is not in our national interest. Instead of perpetuating our fossil fuel dependence by driving a 1,400-mile spike through the American heartland, we must invest in the kinds of efficiency improvements, renewable energy sources and sustainable communities we know can cut our oil use by millions of barrels per day.
That's the way to strengthen our economy, shore up our national security and create a brighter future for us all.
This post originally appeared on NRDC's Switchboard blog.